This article is part of my series The Fabric of the Universe, a fictional, artistic interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The first article is titled “Here and Now We Begin.”
Please note: The translations of the Sanskrit verses are not literal.
The warp must be tight and the weft loose in order for the shuttle to move freely.
The teacher handed them each a wooden frame and a spool of cotton string. He said, “In order to weave, you must build a loom.”
With raised eyebrows and wide eyes, the young man took these items from the teacher and turned them around in his hands as if they might be something other than what they appeared to be. The old woman accepted the objects, and their familiar feel brought her comfort. The boy received them with downcast eyes and a wistful smile.
“Observe and listen carefully. I will give you all the instructions you need.”
The students looked at him with hope and trust, yet at their frames and spools with doubt. They stole glances at one another to gauge the others’ reactions but saw only their own bewildered expressions reflected back.
“First, make a loop around the base of the frame and secure it in the first notch with a knot.” Then he demonstrated and showed them the completed task. “It is important to tie your knot strongly now so it does not loosen later on. If this happens, the fabric will come undone and all your hard work will be lost.”
The teacher saw them watching him but not following his actions with their hands.
‘What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Pick up your materials and begin.”
The young man sighed loudly. The other two students looked away from him and down into their laps. Then all three picked up their frames and spools. They struggled to find the end of the string tucked inside the spool, dropped them onto the dirt floor, and fumbled with which way to hold the frame. The teacher came near to watch their progress. When they got stuck, he repeated the instructions, sometimes more than once or in different words, always patient, never pushing. He did not touch their frames or spools. It took each of them several attempts and many minutes to complete an acceptable knot.
“Good,” he said. “Now begin to set your warp. Stretch the thread across the frame to the corresponding notch on the other side. You will find it slips in easily. Wrap it around the top face of the frame and then down and around the back. Draw the thread back to the original side, coming up from the bottom to wrap it around the top side first. Then repeat,” he said, “over and over again, until you arrive at the last notch. Tie it off there with another knot, and your base will be complete.”
The young man shook his head and looked at the teacher as if he were a madman. The teacher paid no mind and allowed the young man to sit in his cloud of anger while he turned his attention to the other students. After a few futile attempts, the young man rested the frame in his lap and hung his head. He had never given a moment’s thought to how his clothes were made, or considered that people from countries other than his own, all over the world, made not just their own clothes, but also the fabric to make the clothes, and even the string to make the fabric. He felt his face flush with heat and his chest contract.
The old woman’s eyebrows puckered and her hands shook. She had woven cloth and sewn it into clothes for her family for decades, from the time she was a girl. But after arthritis gnarled her fingers into knotted claws, she had sent her daughter to the market to buy her skirts. She recalled with regret now the times she had resented her task, and felt she would give much to go back and perform it with joy had she known her hands would one day lose their strength.
The boy was warmed by the memory of his mother stringing her frames by the fire as she sang him to sleep. He must have watched her do it a hundred times or more and was certain he could do it just as easily. But when he began, he was surprised, then embarrassed at how difficult he found it. He thought about the other things she did for him and realized it was everything and bowed his head to hide the sudden longing that pierced his heart.
“Notice,” the teacher pointed out, “you are always crossing over the front face and under the back. When you hold the frame up to your eye and look at it from the side, you should see a tight line of figure eights, like mirror images. To achieve this, you must keep the thread taut at all times to create the proper tension. Without this tension, your pattern will be unrecognizable and your fabric too loose.”
The students gaped.
“Do not be concerned at first if you break your thread. It is nothing. Simply begin again. Soon, with a little attention and practice, you will discern how tightly you can pull the thread without breaking it.”
The young man felt overwhelmed, agitated, and frustrated. He wished to dash his frame against the floor and shout out. But his respect for the teacher was great, and his desire for the knowledge he hoped to gain from him even greater, so with tremendous effort, he restrained himself.
The old woman’s body ached and she was confused by the whole process, but her long and difficult life had taught her patience and persistence, so she watched and listened and did the best she could.
The boy observed the master keenly all the while but struggled to fight back the tears that kept tricking him into seeing his mother at the loom instead. When he felt himself drowning in desolation, he recalled why he had been sent here, pictured the faith-filled faces of the elders who awaited him with anticipation, and was consoled.
It seemed to them all that the teacher had talked for hours, but in reality it was only a few minutes. When he was done, he paused and asked, “Do you have any questions?”
At first, the students remained silent. There were so many questions, where to begin?
Then the young man said, “I thought you were going to teach us the secrets of the universe.”
The old woman said, “I hoped you would usher me out of this life and into the next.”
The boy said, “You reminded me of my mother.”
One at a time, the teacher looked each of them in the eyes until he touched their souls. Then he brought his palms together at his chest and answered them all at once. “I am.”